Saturday, January 12, 2013

American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Evidence

Please note:  I am pleased to announce formally the publication of my new book, American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Evidence, which was just published by Palgrave-MacMillan.  The book describes how lawmakers often ignore evidence when making law, are guided by political myths, and  enact policies that are known in advance to fail.  I try to explain why legislators often enacted failed policies and are guided by political myths.  I also provide a catalog of about a dozen of the most frequently enacted failed policies and political myths.

Below you shall find a short essay describing the book followed by the official Hamline press release for the book.

I hope all of you read the book, especially at a time when Congress and state legislatures across the country have come back into session.

American Politics in the Age of Ignorance

Elections portend opportunities for change.  Change often involves both people and policy. As a nation we face critical questions about taxes, debt, and stimulating the economy and producing jobs.  Similar problems confront Minnesota legislators as they tackle a $1 billion plus debt.
    Unfortunately, despite the changes in people, many of the policies proposed, adopted, and implemented are not new and they will fail.  This will be true in 2013 both in Washington, D.C. and in Minnesota where nearly a quarter of the legislators will be new.
    This is not for lack of knowledge about their likely impact.  Instead, often ideas or public policies are proposed despite the fact that the best evidence indicates that they will be unsuccessful and ultimately fail.  Unmasking some of these proven failures and explaining why American politics seems condemned to enact them is the topic of my new book, American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Evidence (MacMillan-Palgrave, December 2012).
    Hope is great when it comes to miracles. Belief is terrific when it comes to the Tooth Fairy. But neither hope nor belief should guide the making of public policy to solve our nation’s or Minnesota’s pressing problems, especially now. The making of good laws and government programs should be driven by facts and good evidence regarding what does work, otherwise taxpayer dollars maybe wasted.  Unfortunately, often that is not the case.
    Elected officials often enact failed laws and are captured by political myths. There is a pack mentality among legislators who often turn to trendy and often untested ideas and the  need for quick fixes to make it look like they are doing something as elections approach or to  appease an impatient electorate.  Many elected officials are part time, with limited knowledge, expertise, and ability to gather critical information necessary to make good decisions.  Additionally, the power of money in politics, partisanship, special interest pressures, and sometimes simply ideology or even blindness to the facts–often willful–all contribute to situations where so called new ideas are really recycled old ones already proven to have failed.
    In almost every aspect of our lives we are taught to act upon the best available evidence at hand.  Successful  businesses are guided by data.  Sound medical diagnosis demands it.   Victorious military commanders need intelligence.  Public administrators are taught to use best practices when managing.  The public wants government to be successful and do what works at the most efficient price possible.  But there is a knowledge gap in American politics.  Social science and scientific research, as well as experimentation and past successes and government failures provide significant  evidence regarding what works or not, yet public officials often ignore this information when making policy.
    Neither of the two major political parties seems exempt from ignoring facts when making policy.  Republicans currently  seem particularly prone to make these mistakes.  Governor John Huntsmann, perhaps captured it well at the September, 2011 Reagan Library presidential debate: “Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science.”   Republicans seem convinced, despite the best evidence, that tax cuts are the solution to almost any economic ill there is.  Or that immigrants are an economic drain on the economy.  Or that voter fraud is rampant, corrupting the integrity of U.S. elections.
    Yet Democrats are not innocent.  Despite the best evidence that taxes incentives are hugely  inefficient in terms of affecting business relocation decisions, they often support them.  Or despite overwhelming data that public subsidies for professional sports stadiums or conventions are bad economic investments, Democrats embrace them as tools of job production and revitalization.  Democrats have also joined Republicans in believing that “three strikes and you are out” criminal  penalty laws for repeat offenders deter crime, when again the best evidence contradicts this. 
    Faith, hope, or simply myth and ignorance often describe what the art of politics has become these days.  Evidence-based policy making is what the legislative process  should be about.  This is why legislators hold hearings–they are supposed to be gathering information to help make better policy.  Instead, the hearings are often charades, with policy makers having already made up their minds and the outcome of the proceedings already predetermined from the onset.
    Clearly  no one has all the answers.  Decisions are often made with limited knowledge, and experimentation  is a good idea and way to improve decision making.  Yet all this is different from the current practice of simply ignoring what the evidence says.  And the evidence does speak loudly.  American Politics in the Age of Ignorance documents  a dozen of the most frequent failed policies and political myths that are repeatedly repackaged and enacted.  They include:
*    Tax incentives are a good way to affect business relocation decisions.
*    High taxes serve as deterrent to work or business activity.
*    Enterprise zones are an efficient means to encourage economic development.
*    Public subsidies for sports stadia are a good economic development tool.
*    The building of convention and other entertainment centers are successful tools for economic development.
*    Welfare recipients migrate from state to state simply to seek higher benefits.
*    Three strikes laws and mandatory minimums are effective deterrents to crime.
*    Sex education causes teenagers to engage in sexual activity.
*    Legalization of drugs leads to increased drug usage.
*    Immigration and immigrants take jobs away from Americans and serve as a drain on the economy.
*    Voter photo identification is needed to address widespread election fraud in the United States.
*    Legislative term limits will dismantle incumbent advantages, break ties to special interests, and discourage career politicians.

For the most part, all of these ideas are false based upon significant evidence.  In many cases, enactment or support for these ideas has produced the exact opposite effect from what was intended.
    Be warned–look to see many of these ideas again recycled, proposed, and reenacted again this year in Minnesota and across the country.  But the persistence of this failed policies and myths should not be read as a wholesale indictment of government or of democracy.  Government in America has accomplished a significant amount, ranging from putting a man on the Moon, winning several world wars and the cold war, helping find a cure for polio, and so much more.  The list is impressive and often overlooked.  The Marshall Plan, the building of the interstate highway system, clean water, sewers, fluoridation, Head Start, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and countless other famous and mundane activities demonstrate the capacity of governments to be successful and make meaningful differences in the lives of Americans.  Yet despite these accomplishments, government can still improve.  It can execute better if simply if does what seems to make sense—learn from the past and from the evidence to make future choices better informed.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:                                                                                         CONTACT:
January 10, 2013                                                                                            Gail Nosek: 651-523-2511


ST. PAUL, Minn. (January 10, 2013) – Hamline University professor David Schultz, noted expert on elections, politics, and public policy, has released his latest book. In American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Evidence, Schultz explains why he believes elected officials are frequently captured by political myths and enact laws that are known to fail.

"There is a pack mentality among legislators who often turn to trendy and untested ideas and the need for quick fixes.” Schultz said. “The power of money in politics, partisanship, special interest pressures, and sometimes simply ideology or even blindness to the facts all contribute to situations where so-called new ideas are really recycled old ones already proven to have failed."

In American Politics in the Age of Ignorance, Schultz speaks to a knowledge gap. He argues that social science, scientific research, experimentation, past successes, and government failures provide significant evidence regarding what works and what doesn’t, yet public officials often ignore this information.

In addition to explaining why policy makers often ignore good research, American Politics in the Age of Ignorance also documents a dozen of the most frequent failed policies and political myths that are repeatedly repackaged and enacted. Among the myths and failed policies examined are: the role of taxes in economic develop, public subsidies for sports stadiums, illegal immigration, voter fraud, and abstinence-only sex education. The book can be found at, though the publisher, and other bookstores.

Schultz is a professor of public administration and government ethics at Hamline University School of Business. He has taught classes on American government and election law for more than 25 years. Schultz is the author and editor of 25 books and 90 articles on American politics and law and is a frequently quoted political analyst in the local, national, and international media.  Schultz drew on these experiences, plus him time working in government and on political campaigns, to write American Politics in the Age of Ignorance.

Hamline University attracts a diverse group of 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students who develop their passions working alongside professors invested in their success. Challenged to create and apply knowledge in local and global contexts, students develop an ethic of inclusive leadership and service, civic responsibility, and social justice. Hamline students are transformed in and out of the classroom to discover truths that shape the way they see and are able to change the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment